Don’t stop now

Whole Lotta Love - artist edition by Lotta Antonsson, photo courtesy of Publication Studio Vancouver
Whole Lotta Love – artist edition by Lotta Antonsson, photo courtesy of Publication Studio Vancouver

First, thank you all. Everyone who voted, everyone who expressed their support, everyone who donated to the campaign, all of the fine people on the COPE slate, all of our volunteers, and everyone who brought their soul with them to this election.

Running for City Council wasn’t some ambition I have been harbouring — as I have said before, I had a kind of Howard Beale moment, and suddenly found myself running for Councillor. I also knew all along that I was a longshot candidate, competing against formidable organizations with huge advertising budgets and well-tooled campaign machinery, against candidates who had far better name recognition, who had spent months or years preparing their runs for office. So why run at all?

I ran in this election for the same sorts of reasons that I make art, and for the same reasons that I have sometimes taken on organizations and tasks that look challenging and difficult. I saw it as an obligation to myself, to my community, and to the future. The things that are necessary — homes for people who need them, wages that match the cost of living, and governments that are accountable to citizens — are not hopeless, even when they seem hard to reach.

“I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”
Samuel Beckett, The Unnameable

So please don’t stop. Go on. I won’t stop either. In this election, we all succeeded in changing the conversation around housing, and equality and justice issues. We can also be proud of the anti-corruption policies that COPE developed and advanced during this campaign. None of this stops because the election campaign is over.

Voter suppression against Musqueam?

Voter suppression zones
PINK: areas with no advance polls
RED: voters mysteriously left off the list

Yesterday, we learned that somehow the voters in Musqueam — people whose voting rights were a long time coming in the first place — were left off the voters’ list for this year’s election.

Voters’ confidence in the electoral process was already shaken when we learned about unequal access to advance polls across Vancouver. Especially considering that some of the areas that were badly served by the “expanded” access to advance voting include areas that were badly abused by the current city government. Especially considering that the city’s Electoral Officer reports to the City Manager, who was hired by and reports to the current city government.

The city has blamed the omission of more than 1,000 indigenous voters from the voters’ list on the province. Somehow, however, nobody noticed these voters, who have a good historical reason to be particularly sensitive to being disenfranchised, were simply not there.

There is already an action pending at the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal because of the advance polls. Has this latest “mistake” called the integrity of the entire election into question?

It’s five minutes to midnight for housing in Vancouver

The clock is ticking on making Vancouver housing affordable
People my age will recall seeing the Doomsday Clock from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists during the 1980s. They still publish their assessment of how close the world is to military, and ecological, disaster. This is our version: a Vancouver Housing Disaster Clock. It’s a few minutes to midnight. If we don’t act now, we might not get another chance.

Before the election campaign started, I already knew that the housing situation in Vancouver was getting dire. I mean, it’s obvious to anyone who lives here, unless they have a six-figure salary and don’t get out much. High rents, renovictions, demolitions, low wages, and a hollowing-out economy with low wages and increasingly precarious work situations — all of these things are bad enough, and demand serious action. And COPE is prepared to take action on housing.

But I wasn’t prepared for what I was going to learn during the campaign. It turns out that things are worse, much worse, than I thought they were. This election is no longer about a competition of ideas, but instead it is our last chance to avert disaster.

I’ll forgive you if you’re skeptical. This is an election campaign after all. But here’s how it stacks up:

  • Vision has been selling off city land that could be used to build housing. They are stripping the city of its assets at an alarming rate. In another few years, there may be very little left.
  • “Transit oriented development” means money that used to be available for building public housing and amenities will no longer be available for that. Did you know that the possible Translink funding for the proposed Broadway subway (itself a huge mistake) only pays for part of the cost? Most of the rest is meant to come from developer charges on clusters of new towers along the line. And this is going to be where that money goes in the future: away from public housing, and in to politicians’ pet megaprojects.
  • Vision’s political interference in planning means developers rule the city, more than ever. Take a look at this open letter from urbanist Ned Jacobs regarding the Grandview-Woodlands planning fiasco — he explains it very clearly. Whatever the citizens, and even the planners at City Hall, have to say, secret manoeuvres by developer-funded politicians give us plans and buildings that are bad for citizens, but good for big money.

So this is it. The coming election is for a four-year term, instead of three years. If Vision and their backers get what they want, you definitely won’t recognize the city in four years, and you definitely won’t be able to afford to live here. And if they sell off city land, take money for housing and channel it into impractical megaprojects, and continue to pervert neighbourhood planning, they will make it pretty much impossible for anyone to build public housing when they are done.

On our housing disaster clock, we’re five minutes away from midnight, and only ten days away from the election that can prevent this looming disaster. We need a progressive majority on Vancouver City Council — no more domination by developer parties. COPE is the only non-developer party that is running a majority slate for Council. The choice is clear — vote COPE. Whatever you do, don’t let Vancouver have another four years of developer-dominated government.

VOTE. Donate. Volunteer. Get a lawn sign.

We can’t do this without you

keith-higgins-button-3Donate. Volunteer.

COPE doesn’t accept donations from property developers. Not that developers are lining up to support policies aimed at ending renovictions, building homes for people in all income ranges, working toward a living wage for everyone, making an innovative deal to provide dollar-a-day universal transit passes, increasing transparency and accountability at City Hall, and all of the rest.

We have changed the conversation in this election, moving the discussion to ways that we can make Vancouver a city we can all afford to live in. That’s a great start, but we need something else: you. We need you to donate. We need you to volunteer. We need you to make sure your friends and family vote. We need you to spread the word about us on social media. Mostly we need you to donate and volunteer. Even if you can only spare a little bit of time or money.

If you’re still not sure, here’s some music you can listen to while you’re thinking it over. Every little bit helps. Believe me.

Is this how to discourage voters in Vancouver?

Vancouver's 2014 advance polling stations - mind the gap(s)
Map courtesy of CityHallWatch – shows advance polls with 2km and 4km circles

It was not that long ago that somebody pointed out to me that there was no advance poll in the Downtown Eastside.  With the density of the population and the number of seniors, people with disabilities, and people with language barriers who live there, that’s a pretty big problem on its own. But it turns out that the DTES is not the only neighbourhood affected by lack of access to advance voting. There is a pattern of no access to advance voting that includes most of Grandview-Woodlands, most of Hastings-Sunrise, and chunks of other neighbourhoods as well.

The point of an advance poll is to provide voting opportunities for people who otherwise might have trouble voting on election day — people with difficult work schedules, mobility barriers, and other concerns. In other words, it’s there to promote involvement in the electoral process. However, in Vancouver we are apparently only concerned with promoting that involvement in some of the city’s neighbourhoods, rather than all of them.

For all of the hand-wringing that we have seen lately over “social isolation” and “the lack of citizen engagement”, it’s strange that nobody in the city government has apparently considered providing advance polls to all citizens, in all parts of the city, so that it is easier for citizens to engage in voting. Choosing a city government — that’s citizen engagement, right?

The sad fact is that low voter turnout makes big-money campaigns easier to run. If less voters are coming out overall, phone banks and get-out-the-vote machinery can be more effectively targeted on segments of the population that a party knows are most likely to vote for them. The election then becomes a contest over whose technical capabilities are better, and usually over who is spending more.

Let’s not have that kind of election. Make sure you vote. Make sure your friends and neighbours are on the voters’ list. Offer your neighbours a ride to the advance polls if you think they might have trouble getting there themselves. Let’s have the kind of high turnout that will give the developer-funded parties panic attacks.

An important correction!

Fake petition canvassers
Fake petition canvassers near Main and Broadway – photo courtesy Steven Tong

I have an important correction to make to something I said earlier.

In my speech at COPE’s Nominating Convention, when I talked about my encounter with Vision Vancouver’s fake petition canvassers (the incident that convinced me to run for City Council in the first place), I misidentified the canvassers as “volunteers”. It turns out that was wrong.

They aren’t volunteers at all. They are paid canvassers, and I am reliably told they work for an international company, hired by Vision Vancouver to gather voter contact information using poorly-compensated employees. I’m using the present tense in this paragraph, because it appears they are still at it — the photo above was taken last Friday, near Main and Broadway, where these people were still soliciting names and contact information on the pretence of a “petition for transit on Broadway”.

It’s not all that surprising, I suppose, that Vision is using paid canvassers. From what I am hearing, all across the city,  I wonder if there are any volunteers to be had. Vancouverites I am talking to, from all walks of life, are outraged by Vision’s attempts to mislead them on housing affordability, transparency at City Hall, and many other things. I doubt there are many volunteers to be had. There is a small group of people who get financial benefit from Vision’s policies, and they mostly seem to keep their mouths shut and their wallets open.

It’s not enough to be angry. You have to take those feelings and make them into something positive. We have a chance this November, all of us, to take this city back. But we need voters (make sure you are registered), volunteers (real ones!) to help get the word out, and donations. The last one is really important. In the last election, both NPA and Vision spent in excess of two million dollars each, and my guess is they are both going to spend even more this time. Your fives and twenties and fifties are worth a lot more in this campaign than you might think. Donate. Volunteer. Vote. And make sure your friends and neighbours are registered to vote too.

And if you see the fake canvassers in your corner of the city, send me the time, date, location, and the pitch they used. You can post to my Facebook page, or on Twitter with the #vanpoli tag.

A non-campaign note: #SWARM15

Make art. Make a lot of art all of the time. Don't stop making art. Courage.
If you’re at SWARM on Friday night, look for volunteers distributing this button (a limited edition of 250)

This week — Thursday, September 11 and Friday September 12 — is SWARM, an annual festival of artist-run culture in Vancouver. Tonight (Thursday) there are gallery openings in Mount Pleasant, Granville Island, and Hastings-Sunrise; tomorrow night, Chinatown, Downtown, and DTES. Here’s why you should go: the members of PAARC are groups of artists who have organized on their own behalf to bring new art to the public. In their own words:

Members of PAARC are collectives and non-profit organizations in British Columbia run by artists that advocate for livable incomes for artists and a commitment to the principle that artists deserve to be paid for their endeavours; stand against censorship and for the rights of artists to organize, work and advocate on their own behalf; and promote the meaningful inclusion of diverse voices, origins and abilities in the arts. Members support these rights as advocates of non-profit, critical, marginal, difficult and transgressive artistic expression.

Or, here’s the official #swarm15 poster by Jaz Halloran:


Now we really start campaigning – but first, thank you

Whole Lotta Love - artist edition by Lotta Antonsson, photo courtesy of Publication Studio Vancouver
Whole Lotta Love – artist edition by Lotta Antonsson, photo courtesy of Publication Studio Vancouver

It’s official — on Sunday, September 7, the members of COPE, the Coalition of Progressive Electors, gave me their nomination to run for Vancouver City Council.

Thanks to everyone who supported me my the bid for this nomination, and all of the COPE members and candidates. There’s a lot of work to be done between now and November 15, and it starts now!

New art needs places to grow in Vancouver

Photo by Mark MushetIn a healthy, democratic city, art represents a diverse range of voices and experiences and is available to everyone who wants to experience it. And if you want art — theatre, dance, poetry, painting, photography, every kind of music, and everything else — you need artists.

Like everyone else, artists are being squeezed by high rents – they are being squeezed twice over if they need to pay rent on a studio or practice space. The same high rents are squeezing the venues — galleries, media art centres, music venues, independent bookshops — where Vancouverites can join the audience for the art and culture that is being produced here, now, in our city.

It gets even worse when a cultural space runs into problems with the many rules and regulations of various arms of the city. Many of the places that support important new art from bands, and performing arts companies, and visual artists who you haven’t heard of yet, and who are taking artistic risks to create glorious, startling, politically engaged, and thoughtful new art, are shoestring operations that don’t have the resources to hire the experts and consultants who can help smooth over these problems. They often don’t have the resources to survive through a sudden and unexpected shutdown, or a forced relocation.

A few cases come to mind right away. Zoo Zhop, an all-ages music venue, was peppered with confusing requests from inspectors, and eventually closed. Red Gate were driven from their premises at 152 West Hastings by escalating demands from the city. That building, which had housed studio, performance, and office space for artists and cultural organizations since the early 1980s, ended up being sold by the owner to an investor who now seems to own most of the buildings on either side of it. Around the same time, also in the 100-block of West Hastings, Dynamo Arts Centre, a studio and gallery collective, were told around by a new owner that they needed to clear out. Fortunately both Red Gate and Dynamo did find new premises in more out-of-the-way locations. But what will happen when the wave of redevelopment hits those places? Will these venues keep being chased from neighbourhood to neighbourhood until they leave Vancouver?

Market forces left to themselves will not solve the problem of vanishing cultural space. If current trends in development are left alone, our cultural venues and studios will end up replaced by condos, chain stores, fast food, nail salons and personal trainers. Unpredictable encounters with the City’s regulatory frameworks are still a danger to the cultural organizations who don’t have any “pull” within the power structures of City Hall. Little bits of money going here and there for capital improvements and feasibility studies can be helpful, but they don’t fix the underlying problems. That’s why COPE will take action to protect the kinds of buildings and locations that are best suited to the adventurous, innovative organizations, collectives, and working artists that are fostering the musicians, composers, independent filmmakers, poets, painters, sculptors, choreographers, dancers, actors, directors, and playwrights who will be important in the years to come.

We can continue trying to apply band-aid solutions to a deepening crisis, or we can vote for positive change with COPE. It’s a pretty straightforward choice.






Why I decided to run: housing and honesty

Keith Higgins_Sept-14Late last week I was walking home from work when a group of young people stopped me at Main and Keefer, and asked if I would sign their “petition for affordable housing”. Oddly, however, the document on their clipboards was not a petition; it was simply a sheet with a Vision Vancouver logo, spaces for names and contact information, and nothing else.

Veterans of political campaigns might chuckle at this, and tell me that much worse happens all the time. For me, however, this episode is emblematic of the way in which our city government continues to try to mislead Vancouverites on housing issues. It was also the moment that I made up my mind to seek a COPE nomination for City Council.

Also last week, the Mayor’s office sent out a press release announcing a “surge in affordable housing”. That assertion has so many problems that it’s difficult to know where to start, but I’m going to cover just a few key deficiencies.

We could start with Vision’s philosophical definition of “affordable”, as expressed by Councillor Kerry Jang: “Affordable housing is something that somebody can afford.” In other words, in their hands the term “affordable” is so relative as to become meaningless. If someone is making six digits a year, and they can afford their home, then bingo, it’s “affordable housing”. Pressed for clarification, council decided that a $1433-a-month studio apartment or a $2061-a-month two bedroom unit is affordable housing. Keep in mind that almost 40% of renter households in Vancouver earn less than $30,000 per year – according to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, in order to afford the “affordable” studio, your income should be over $55,000 a year, and for the 2-bedroom, over $81,000.

But Vision also said there was a surge in “social housing”. This has also been accomplished by fudging the definition. The new Vision definition of social housing says that 70% of these units are not for low income people at all: they can be priced at “market rate”. The remaining 30% are also pegged to “average market rent”, currently estimated at $875 per month (although I defy you to find liveable rentals on the market for that amount or less).

And most importantly, the “surge” is not a surge in actual new units. After six years with a majority on council, and after pouring developer subsidies into the STIR and Rental 100 programs in the hope that these gifts will make developers decide to focus on less-lucrative market segments (they haven’t), all that the Mayor’s office can point to is an increase in approvals of projects which may take years to build. On the social-housing side, these are provincial government projects, the same fourteen projects that the province has been announcing every few months for several years now as if they were new initiatives. As the provincial government has now declared that they will not be building any new social housing, and the city displays no intention of picking up the slack, the surge is no surge at all, just a brief blip on a dismal record of increasing homelessness, demolitions, renovictions, and housing costs that rise much faster than incomes.

COPE is the only party proposing decisive action on housing. It’s your choice – fake petitions and fudged press releases, or policies that create housing that we all can afford.